The practice of boys dressing up and dancing at private parties was outlawed over concerns it fostered abuse of young boys by powerful, older men
By Stefanie Glinski
KABUL, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In conservative Afghanistan, former dancing boy Farhad leads a double life; married father-of-six by day, cross-dressing dancer and sex worker by night.
The practice of "bacha bazi" - translated as "boy play" - involves boys dressing up and dancing at private parties, but it was outlawed in 2017 amid concerns it fostered sexual abuse and servitude of young boys by powerful, older men. Islamic clerics led calls for the centuries-old tradition to be stopped, saying those involved should be stoned for sodomy which is forbidden under Islamic law.
"(But bacha bazi) continues to happen and is a grave human rights violation," said Abdul Rasheed, executive director of the non-profit Youth Health and Development Organization (YHDO).
"Pressing charges against the perpetrators is almost impossible as many are in a position of power," he added.
The YHDO has highlighted how sexual abuse and trafficking of boys was a practice that exploded during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, with boys from rural areas flocking to cities to find work to support families, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
In 2019 aid workers said they were seeing a growing number of children orphaned or forced to work on the streets.
But human rights campaigners voiced concerns not only about the abuse of young boys but the impact on those forced into this kind of exploitation in their later lives.
Farhad, now 29 - who asked not to be identified by his real name - said he was raped in his early teens by several local police officers but his parents quickly moved from their home city and never wanted to talk about the attack or report it.
Shame, or threats from those responsible, prevents most victims of sexual abuse from speaking up in a country where the sexes are strictly segregated and it is common for men to dance for other men at weddings.
Psychologist Lyla Schwartz, who works with child victims of rape in war-torn Afghanistan, said harsh parental attitudes meant many abuse victims carried the trauma into adulthood.
"Stigma and unsupportive, denying family members make the healing process of being sexually abused even more difficult," she said.
'MY MOTHER BEAT ME'
Farhad's friend, Ramesh, 28 - who also spoke on condition of anonymity - was raped when he was 16.
"A car with armed militia stopped. They pulled me inside and drove off, announcing to their friends that they had brought 'a beautiful boy'. The men took turns raping me," he said.
Ramesh said when his attackers took him home three days later, his family had already guessed what had happened.
"My mother beat me and my father wanted to kill me," Ramesh recalled. Weeks later, the family moved from a northern town to the capital.
But similar assaults happened in Kabul where he was forced to dance at parties as a "bacha bareesh", translated as a boy without a beard.
After Ramesh finished school, he started to have sex with men for money, but he also got married. Today, he has three children but most of his income comes from sex work.
"I realised many men wanted to sleep with me and I needed money. I started going home with people and developed an interest. Some are now my clients and pay me; others are friends who I decide to have sex with," he said.
Ali Abdi, a PhD candidate at Yale University who has been researching same-sex relations in Afghanistan since 2016, said there could be hundreds of former dancing boys in Kabul making a living as dancers or sex workers.
Abdi said in contrast to other sexual abuse victims, all the former dancing boys he had spoken to engaged in sex with men as adults, often leading complicated, confused lives.
'CONSTANTLY WORRIED, CONSTANTLY HIDING'
Given the choice, Farhad says he would have had gender-reassignment surgery as he had always wanted to live as a woman but instead he married and lived a double life.
"Afghan society puts a lot of pressure on people like us ... We're constantly worried, constantly hiding," Farhad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, wearing a floral dress and bright lipstick as he spoke at a friend's home in the capital, Kabul.
Every morning at his own house in the city, Farhad gets dressed in a traditional Afghan tunic and eats a plate of fried eggs for breakfast before heading out until late for work.
He tells his wife and children he has a job as a driver, and while they never ask questions, he assumes they know the truth.
Several nights a week, he puts on colourful dresses and make-up, paints his nails and performs as a dancer at private parties, often having sex with men for money afterwards.
"I live a double life. I don't identify as a man. If I had the choice, I would undergo a sex change," he said.
Farhad said he had made the difficult decision to marry and hide behind a conventional family life because of the potential dangers of being open about his gender identity.
"(Being openly) gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Afghanistan is to risk abuse, even death," said Human Right Watch's associate Asia director Patricia Gossman.
Abdi said the biggest threat often came from relatives.
"If a family member finds out about their sexual proclivities, the violence they may experience may be unspeakable," he said.
"They might get beaten, sexually abused, raped, kidnapped, and even killed under certain circumstances."
Like Farhad, Ramesh said he assumed his wife knew about his secret life. His feet are decorated with henna and he often comes home in the early hours.
Neither of them wants to split up their families, and they have no plans to leave Afghanistan, hoping instead that their homeland will gradually become more open and accepting.
The weekend is a chance for the two friends to escape, often joining other former dancing boys for drives through the city, or picnics on the hilly outskirts.
"It's only during our brief moments together that we forget and that we are free," Ramesh said.
(Reporting by Stefanie Glinski; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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